Barry Smith: Bum a smoke, get a sermon
May 16, 2002
‘Twas not so long ago that I found myself sitting outside what passed for a coffee shop in suburban Southern California.
I was drinking coffee and writing in my journal, trying to look hip. I was looking to gain inspiration from my new surroundings, as any change of scenery can bring about new reflections. In this case, the scenery was the Save-On Drug Store strip mall parking lot. Take that, Kerouac.
A sharply dressed black man walked toward me on his way to the bank next door. I noticed that he was smoking a cigarette, then my gaze fell on the empty ashtray on my table. Writing, coffee shop, cigarette – I’m in.
“Hey, could I bum a cigarette off you?” I asked.
He patted down his pockets and replied, “I left ’em in the car.”
“Well, thanks anyway.”
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Then he said, “I’ll go and get you one. You seem like a nice guy.”
Halfway to his car he turned around and yelled, “Are Kools OK?”
Kools. The nastiest incarnation of the nastiest substance. The bottom of the barrel in a barrel with nothing but bottom. Kools. Like smoking a urinal cake from a beer garden port-a-potty. Sure … why not?
“Whatever you’re smoking, man,” I called back.
He returned and lit my Kool for me. Ahhh, like a breath of spring – if you happen to be celebrating spring in the dumpster behind a cough drop factory.
We chatted a bit. I told him I lived in Aspen. He had a daughter in Denver. This and that. He told me he was a minister, which would explain the large gold cross he wore around his neck.
“Do you have a church?” I asked.
“No, they won’t let me have a church,” he replied. “‘Cause I know the truth.”
I didn’t ask, but he proceeded to tell me this Truth that he knew. Slowly at first, then with increasing passion. Three minutes into The Truth, he was yelling. Not at me, just yelling.
He had a beautiful, deep booming voice, like any good Baptist preacher should, and he was warming up real nice.
Now, imagine an over-the-top parody of a Baptist preacher, bellowing his fiery message to his congregation, stretching out the word “Jesus” to a full seven seconds, pounding a podium like a man trying to revive a loved one with holy CPR. Now multiply this by, say, five times. That’s what was going down.
“And Saul was walking down the road to Damascus, and he was struck blind by the Lord! He was struck … WHAT? HE WAS STRUCK BLIND!”
It was an interactive sermon. Sort of. Occasionally he would ask these questions and wait about half a second for my answer. I would do my best in the short time allotted.
“AND HE WAS BAPTISED IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON AND THE … WHAT!?”
“Uh … that would be the Hol-“
“THE HOLY GHOST,” he’d yell before I could finish. I wasn’t really a necessary part of this performance, just a warm body at which to point occasionally.
Then his son, about 10 years old, came walking up from the car. By the look on his face, this was obviously not the first time Daddy had run to the bank and ended up doing the good Lord’s work.
“Daddy, I gotta go to the soccer game so …”
“Hey!” His dad cut him off by slicing his hand through the air, then continued without missing a beat.
“AND JESUS SAID TO SAUL, ‘WHY DO YOU KICK AGAINST THE PRICKS?’ WHY DO YOU KICK AGAINST … WHAT?”
“THE PRICKS! HALLELUJIAH!”
He whipped a handkerchief out of his left pocket.
“AH, YOU GOT ME PREACHING NOW, BROTHER,” he said, mopping his lips and his brow with his new prop as the message continued to unfurl. Oh, this guy was good.
And loud. I really can’t stress enough how loud he was. He was standing about five feet from me, and I was a congregation of one, but I could see people way out in the parking lot turning around to see what all the commotion was about. I’m pretty sure his voice even set off a few car alarms. The partially covered strip mall walkway created a nice echo, so I’m sure the people all the way down at Koo-Ka-Roo Chicken could hear just fine.
I never quite got a handle on what the church-preventing Truth was that was so dangerous to The Man, as the whole sermon seemed a bit random, even to someone like me who has spent some time in a Southern Baptist Church. I forgave him his nonsequiturs, though, as I found him extremely entertaining – the best street theater I could ever hope for.
After a good 15 minutes, I realized that this sermon had no natural conclusion, and that it would be up to me to help bring it on home. Plus, the cigarette was long since finished, and if one Kool meant 15 minutes of pure brimstone, I feared what cadging a second one would bring. I began packing my notebooks into my backpack while he rambled on about Jeroboam and Rehoboam, or something.
I zipped up my bag, stood up respectfully and offered my hand.
“Good luck, man. Thanks for the smoke.”
“I DON’T NEED LUCK, BROTHER! I WALK WITH THE LORD! I WALK WITH … WHO!?”
“THE LORD! PRAISE BE!”
And off he went to the ATM.
I turned and walked inside the coffee shop to pay my bill, and there stood the three employees lined up perfectly behind the counter, saucer-eyed, their mouths noticeably hanging open.
“Sorry about that, man,” said the owner, sincerely apologetic.
“It was fun,” I said.
They all stared blankly at me, so I felt the need to explain.
“I pay money to go see movies that aren’t nearly that entertaining. If he would have asked me for money, I would have given him 10 bucks. He was good.”
Their collective reaction of “whatever” was hard to miss. I paid my bill without further explanation and headed out into suburbia, eager for my next encounter.
And to think that I once considered giving up cigarettes.